In ancient Rome, the ultimate honor was to receive a triumph, or a lavish parade through Rome to celebrate a great military victory. The hero would ride a chariot, accompanied by the veterans of the campaign and the plunder of war—the ranks of prisoners, vessels of gold, crowns of pearls, and placards bearing the names of conquered nations—all the way to the Temple of Jupiter where he would make a sacrifice to the god. According to ancient sources, a slave stood in the great man’s chariot, held a golden crown over his head, and whispered in his ear, “remember you are a man.” At the very moment of exultation, the honoree was given a word of warning: You are mortal and glory is transient. Donald Trump is about to enjoy his own triumph—the inauguration as president. There may never have been a president more at risk of hubris. Where is the voice whispering in his ear, urging humility?
Psychologists have found that most people are prone to overconfidence about their own abilities and control over events. In a 2004 survey of almost 1 million high school students, just 2 percent rated their leadership skills as “below average.” Motorcyclists, businessmen, college professors, Bungee jumpers—all tend to think they’re better than the norm.
Overconfidence can also vary significantly. Men tend to be more overconfident than women (although some studies suggest this isn’t always the case). Americans are more overconfident than East Asians. As two psychologists put it, “Americans are widely regarded as the most optimistic people on earth.” Elites are more prone to overconfidence, whether they’re top-class chess players or masters of the universe on Wall Street.